Sgt. Lewis Harry Brittan
Sgt. Lewis H. Brittan was born on October 10, 1915,
to Max & Fannie Brittan who were Russian
immigrants. He and his brother were raised in
Downers Grove, Illinois, and attended Downers Grove
High School where he played basketball.
After high school, he worked as a shipping clerk for a novelty company. His family also had moved to 1844 South Komensky Avenue in Chicago. He enlisted in the Illinois National Guard in August 1940, with his best friend from high school, Albert Cornils. Their reason for doing this is a draft act was just passed and the 33rd Tank Company from Maywood, Illinois, was being called to federal service in November 1940, as B Company, 192nd Tank Battalion.
Albert trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and in January, 1941, Lew was reassigned to Headquarters Company, when it was formed with men from the four letter companies of the battalion.
In the late summer of 1941, Lew took part in maneuvers in Louisiana. HQ Company's job during the maneuvers was to service the battalion's tanks. Otherwise, they were not actively involved in the maneuvers.
After the maneuvers, the battalion was ordered to Camp Polk, Louisiana, instead of returning to Ft. Knox as they expected. It was on the side of a hill that the members of the battalion learned that General George S. Patton had selected them for overseas duty. Most of the men were given leaves home to say goodbye and get their business in order.
The battalion traveled west by train to San Francisco, California, where they were taken by ferry to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. At Ft. McDowell, they were given physicals and inoculated. Those men found to have a minor medical condition were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date. Other men were simply replaced.
The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27th. During this part of the trip, many tankers had seasickness, but once they recovered they spent much of the time training in breaking down machine guns, cleaning weapons, and doing KP. The ship arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2nd and had a two day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island.
On Wednesday, November 5th, the ship sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time it was joined by, the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Louisville and, another transport, the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge. Sunday night, November 9th, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11th. During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Date Line. On Saturday, November 15th, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon. The Louisville revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it shot off in the direction of the smoke. It turned out the smoke was from a ship that belonged to a friendly country.
When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16th, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila the next day. At one point, the ships passed an island at night and did so in total blackout. This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm's way. The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20th, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning. At 3:00 P.M., most of the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks.
At the fort, they were greeted by Colonel Edward P. King, who apologized they had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Airfield. He made sure that they had what they needed and received Thanksgiving Dinner before he went to have his own dinner. Ironically, November 20th was the date that the National Guard members of the battalion had expected to be released from federal service.
The members of the battalion pitched the tents in an open field halfway between the Clark Field Administration Building and Fort Stotsenburg. The tents were set up in two rows and five men were assigned to each tent. There were two supply tents and meals were provided by food trucks stationed at the end of the rows of tents.
For the next seventeen days the tankers worked to remove cosmoline from their weapons. The grease was put on the weapons to protect them from rust while at sea. They also loaded ammunition belts, did tank maintenance and prepared to take part in maneuvers with the 194th Tank Battalion.
On Monday, December 1st, the tanks were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against paratroopers. The 194th Tank Battalion guarded the northern half of the airfield, while the 192nd guarded the southern half. At all times, two members of every tank and half-track crew remained with their vehicles. Meals were brought to them by food trucks.
At six in the morning on December 8th, the officers of the battalion were called to the radio room at the fort. They were ordered to bring their tank platoons up to full strength at the perimeter of airfield. All morning the sky was filled with American planes. At noon, the planes landed to be refueled and the pilots went to lunch. At 12:45, the tankers were having lunch and watched as 54 planes approached the airfield from the north. As they watched, the saw "raindrops" falling from the planes. When bombs began exploding, the soldiers knew the planes were Japanese.
The tankers could do little more than watch since their weapons, except for the tanks' machine guns, were useless against planes. After the attack, the tankers saw the damage done to the airfield. They remained at the airfield for a week before being sent north.
The battalion was sent to Lingayen Gulf,, on December 21st, were their job was to hold a position until the Filipino and American forces had established another defensive line. They would then disengage and fall back. Lew and the other members of the 192nd were the last American forces to enter the Bataan Peninsula as the rear guard.
On Bataan, HQ Company made sure that the letter companies received the necessary supplies during the Battle of Bataan. Since he was in the rear area, he did not take part in any combat against the Japanese. He did live with the constant strafing and bombings inflicted on the rear area by Japanese planes. On January 13, 1942, he was wounded.
The evening of April 8, 1942, Capt. Fred Bruni, HQ's commanding officer, gave his men the news of the surrender. While informing the members of the company of the surrender, he waved his arm toward the tanks and told the men that they would no longer need them. As he spoke, his voice choked. He turned away from the men for a moment, and when he turned back he continued. He next told the sergeants what they should do to disable the tanks. During the announcement, Bruni emphasized that they all were to surrender together. He told the soldiers to destroy their weapons and any supplies that could be used by the Japanese. The only thing they were told not to destroy were the company's trucks. The men waited in their bivouac until ordered to move. Somehow, Bruni had found enough bread and pineapple juice for what he called, "Their last supper."
On April 11th, the first Japanese soldiers appeared at HQ company's encampment. Donald was now a Prisoner of War. A Japanese officer ordered the company, with their possessions, out onto the road that ran in front of their encampment. Once on the road, the soldiers were ordered to kneel along the sides of the road with their possessions in front of them. As they knelt, the Japanese soldiers, who were passing them, went through their possessions and took whatever they wanted from the Americans. They remained along the sides of the road for hours.
HQ Company finally boarded trucks and drove to just outside of Mariveles. From there, they walked to Mariveles Airfield and ordered to sit. As they sat, the POWs noticed a line of Japanese soldiers forming across from them. They soon realized that this was a firing squad and the Japanese were going to kill them.
As they prepared to die, a car pulled up and a Japanese officer got out of the car and spoke to the sergeant in charge of the detail. After talking to the sergeant, he got back in the car and drove off. The sergeant ordered the soldiers to lower their guns.
The POWs were placed into groups of 100 with three or four guards. The guards assigned to duty on the march were extremely well-armed. Lew recalled that not all the prisoners taken on Bataan made the march. Many prisoners were immediately placed in work details and remained on Bataan.
To the prisoners, it seemed that the Japanese were in a constant rush to move them. Those not moving fast enough were hit with rifle butts or jabbed with bayonets. Those who could not go on and fell were shot. Lew witnessed two incidents where POWs were shot on the march. In one case, a man had to defecate and went to the side of the road. He was told to move by a guard. When he did not move fast enough, he was shot.
To Lew, the heat and lack of water were the two greatest enemies of the prisoners. The Japanese had searched the prisoners before the march and confiscated everything. This meant that they had no canteens to carry water in to drink. Lew recalled that he and the other prisoners were thirsty all the time. This was despite the fact that they were marching through water flowing from artesian wells.
Those prisoners who went to the wells for a drink were shot. It was not until the prisoners made it to San Fernando that they were fed and received water.
Lew never saw any signs of POWs being beheaded, but like all the prisoners, he heard stories of this happening. He was on the main highway and believed that the be-headings were done, by the Japanese, to the marchers on the side roads. He had also heard a story that one company of Filipino soldiers was totally wiped out by the Japanese, in this manner. The reason was that they were Asians who had fought along side the Americans.
At San Fernando, Lew boarded the train and rode to Capas. From Capas, he marched the last few miles to Camp O'Donnell. When he arrived, he was extremely weak. Unknown to him, he was suffering from malaria. As it turned out, the area around Camp O'Donnell was infested with malaria.
As Lew recalled 50 to 80 men died each day over the next two months. To him, one of the worst things about Camp O'Donnell was the fact that there was one water faucet for 7000 men.
From Camp O'Donnell, Lew was sent to Cabanatuan #3. According to Lew, this camp was for prisoners whom the Japanese felt were ill or dying. Camp #1 was supposedly for the healthier prisoners. At all the camps, the healthier prisoners were sent out on work details. Only the sick and dying prisoners stayed in the camps. Meidcal records from the camp show he was admitted to the camp hospital on June 6, 1942, with dysentery and was not discharged until September 5, 1942.
Even at this point in time, the prisoners still believed that they would be repatriated and be home in time for Christmas. While a prisoner at Cabanatuan, Lew was sent to Manila on a work detail for two months. It was while he was working on this detail that he had another attack of malaria and was sent to Bilibid Prison. After recovering from this bout of malaria, he was sent back to Cabanatuan to build runways and then was returned to Bilibid.
On June 13, 1942, the Japanese created a work detail of POWs to work the docks at Manila. The POWs were used as stevedores to load and unload ships. They were first housed in a warehouse which was poorly and ventilated. The bathroom and kitchen facilities were also poor. The Japanese finally housed the POWs in the Port Terminal Building across the street from Pier 7. Once this was done, more POWs were added to the detail. It was at this time that Lew joined the detail.
At some point, Lewis became ill and was sent to the hospital ward at Bilibid Prison. According to records kept by the medical staff, he was admitted to the hospital suffering from malaria and remained in the hospital until he was discharged on July 17th and sent to Barracks 18.
While Lewis was hospitalized the Port Area work detail ended on July 15, 1944. The 1033 POWs, from the detail, were taken to Pier 7 for transport to Japan and boarded onto the Nissyo Maru. At first, like the other prisoners, Lew viewed this as a means of escape from the life in the camps. He would later regret this belief. He and the other POWs had been put in the hold of the ship, back to back, while standing up. When the hold was full, the Japanese closed the hatches and put the remaining 600 POWs in the other holds.
The ship sailed on July 17th and dropped anchor off the breakwater of the harbor. For the first day and a half, the POWs were not fed. When they were fed, they received rice and vegetables and a canteen cup of water. They would receive this meal and amount of water twice a day. The POWs remained in the hold for two days before the ship sailed.
On July 17th, the ship moved to a point off of Corregidor and dropped anchor about 5:00 P.M. and remained until July 24th. When it sailed, it sailed at 8:00 A.M. as part of a convoy which sailed north by northeast. On July 26th at 3:00 in the morning, there was an explosion and large fire off to the side of ship. The POWs could see the light, from the fire, through the hold which was not covered. It turned out that the one of the ships, the Otari Yama Maru had been hit by a torpedo from the U.S.S. Flasher which was a part of a three submarine wolf pack. They also heard the explosions as other ships were hit. In one case, the explosion was so great that the POWs saw the flames go over the uncovered hatches. Four of the thirteen ships in the convoy were sunk.
One time, Lew was attempting to relieve himself in the designated area of the hold. He accidentally bumped into another prisoner. The man responded by attacking Lew. Lew's life was saved by two other POWs who pulled the man off of him. The prisoners were only allowed on deck once a day for about fifteen minutes.
During the voyage, the prisoners heard a "bang" under the ship. They assumed that it was a torpedo from an American submarine. Another ship in the convoy that was carrying POWs was hit by torpedoes resulting in the deaths of almost 707 Americans. The attack took place at 3:00 A.M. The POWs did not know it, but they were under attack by a wolf pack made up of the U.S.S. Crevale, U.S.S. Angler, and U.S.S. Flasher. The ship arrived at Takao, Formosa, on July 27th and sailed the next day for Moji, Japan. From July 30th to August 2nd the ship sailed through a storm. On August 3rd, the POWs were issued clothes and the ship finally arrived at Moji on August 4th at midnight. For Lew, this journey to Japan was the worst thing that he would experience as a POW.
The trip to Japan took nineteen days to complete and resulted in the deaths of fourteen men. When the POWs were disembarked from the ship at 8:00 A.M., they were broken into detachments of 100 men. Lew's detachment was sent, by train, to Sendai #10 outside of Tokyo. Upon arrival, his physical condition was listed as being "fair." He would remain in this camp to the end of the war and was used as a slave laborer in a steel mill.
The Japanese withheld clothing, medical supplies and treatment, and food from the POWs that came in the Red Cross packages. The POWs were also required to work long hours even when they were sick if they could stand. Those POWs working in the steel mill were not given safety devices to protect him from excessive heat and fumes.
It was while at this camp that he witnessed the fire bombing of Tokyo. After the raid, as the planes flew over the camp they would dip their wings to show the POWs that they knew they were there.
Lew returned to the United States on the S.S. Klipfontein, at Seattle, Washington, on October 27, 1945, and was hospitalized for thirteen months with tuberculosis. On May 20, 1947, he was discharged from the army and returned to the Chicago area. He married Julia Haataja and became the father of two sons and a daughter. He attended Roosevelt University, in Chicago, and earned a Bachelors of Science Degree in Accounting. He would work as an comptroller for a car dealer and later as a tax adviser. The one lasting result of his POW imprisonment was that Lew loved to eat.
On September 23, 1990, Lewis Brittan died from a heart attack while sitting in a chair at home. He was buried at Shalom Memorial Park, Palatine, Illinois.